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The New Pornographers Are Back in the Driver’s Seat with “In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights”

29 Oct

The New Pornographers…not a great name, but a standout band…are a Canadian super-group based in Vancouver, BC. The seven-member collective has featured three lead singers — AC Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case (the only non-Canadian) — since their 2000 debut and they’re back with their eighth release, In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights.

Bejar missed out on the band’s last album, Whiteout Conditions, because he was focused on his own band, Destroyer, and their new release. For some reason, he has also skipped this album. But that hasn’t prevented The New Pornographers from delivering another outstanding selection of harmony-laden, uplifting power pop.

The rich arrangements rely on layered keyboards, guitar, and catchy, often complex, beats. The lyrics — almost exclusively written by Newman — can be biting and depressing at times, but provide a personal perspective on today’s political environment and life’s challenges. Overall, In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights is another exceptional release from a band that has proven itself over nearly two decades.

Track highlights: The album starts its car-themed songs with “You’ll Need A New Backseat Driver.” It’s a melodic, propulsive tune driven by a circular bass line, lightly tripping drums and Neko case’s bright, clear alto vocals.

Track 2, “The Surprise Knock,” is a shimmering and soaring tune — with a bouncy beat, thrumming guitars and synths, and captivating guy/girl harmonies that are distinctively New Pornographers.

The first single on In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights is “Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile.” This is an upbeat, pulsing, slightly jazzy pop-rock hit with handclaps and a noisy, chanting background.

“Colossus Of Rhodes” follows, making four outstanding songs in a row to start the album. The track is anthemic, with tinkling piano, swelling orchestral flourishes, skittering and tumbling drums, and lush harmonies accompanying Case’s lead vocals.

The second half of the album is not quite as strong as the first half — but that’s hardly surprising, considering how strong the first half is.

All things considered, In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights is another album you can expect to make my Top 30 of the year on @KZSU come this January.


Belle and Sebastian Are Back with a Movie Soundtrack, “Days Of The Bagnold Summer”

16 Oct

It’s not unusual for a Belle and Sebastian tune to find its way into a movie or television soundtrack. Lead singer-songwriter, Stuart Murdoch, often writes about life, love and human emotions in ways that would make the band’s cinematic songs a perfect accompaniment to many film or TV plot lines.

What is unusual is for Belle and Sebastian to be engaged to write an entire soundtrack for a movie, which is what the band has done for “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” a recent release adapted from a graphic novel written by Joff Winterhart.

The music on Days Of The Bagnold Summer is classic Belle and Sebastian — dreamy orchestrated folk and catchy pop with a dash of rock infused into a couple of numbers. Nine songs feature vocals that help tell the film’s story, while four are instrumentals (one with some movie dialogue and a hint of background vocals).

Track highlights: After a slow, strummy instrumental introduction, track 2, “I Know Where The Summer Goes,” is a wistful, swelling tune featuring keyboards — piano and organ — over a simple rhythm, with layers of orchestral elements as well.

The next tune shifts to a lightly tripping folk-pop feel. “Did The Day Go Just Like You Wanted” showcases fingerpicked guitar backed by lovely strings — with a touch of brass in the lead break.

Track 9 on Days Of The Bagnold Summer is “Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying.” It’s an up-tempo, fun, bouncy, guitar-driven light rocker, with a little tambourine in a few places.

The highlight of the album is lead single, “Sister Buddha.” It’s also an uplifting, driving pop-rock song with soaring, ringing keys, crunchy guitar and thumping drums — all resulting in a mini-anthem feeling.

Finally, my review wouldn’t be complete without a mention of “This Letter,” a bossa nova jazzy thing — with Murdoch’s vocals out front. Muted horns are added in the lead break over the fingerpicked and strummed guitar.

Days Of The Bagnold Summer is another very fine offering from the indie darlings based in Glasgow, Scotland. Check it out.


In The Valley Below Is Back with a Strong Collection of Dark Synth-Based Pop

18 Sep

Angela Gail and Jeffrey Jacob came to Los Angeles via different routes — Angela from Michigan and Jeffrey from Memphis. But once there, they connected and founded In The Valley Below in 2011. They were part of the L.A. music scene for a few years before joined forces and their Man Girl EP and “Peaches” single caught fire and rocketed up the alternative charts. This established them with their fresh synth-driven, dark pop sound.

The duo followed their initial EP with a well-received full-length album, The Belt. Then came more changes. With the couple now married and parents to a son, they decided to leave the bright lights of L.A. and move back to Angela’s home area near Grand Rapids, Michigan.

When they finally settled in and completed their basement studio, they got to work on their excellent sophomore release, The Pink Chateau.

An erotic short film of the same name, which was written and co-directed by Angela, complements the album. Filmed in and around an elegant bed-and-breakfast in Michigan, the European-feeling tale follows a young woman through a journey of self-realization and sexual exploration. Told without any dialogue, the film relies on The Pink Chateau’s music as a soundtrack.

In The Valley Below melds Angela’s seductive keyboards and sultry, often soulful vocals with Jacob’s raw guitar riffs to deliver a sound that is reminiscent of the Eurhythmics or new wave bands such as New Order — yet updated for today.

Track highlights: The Pink Chateau opens with the single “Rise,” a slow, shimmering burner with a pulsing bass line and soulful vocals.

The playful sexy title track is next, featuring lightly tripping synths and guitar over a syncopated rhythm. The lyrics manage to include the band’s name, “Come with me to the Pink Chateau/Down in the valley below,” which seems quite appropriate considering the band name’s acknowledged reference to the female anatomy and the song’s use as the erotic film’s title track.

Track 3 was one of the most challenging on the new album, according to Angela. Written in the aftermath of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, “Bloodhands (Oh My Fever)”, seeks to provide a non-preachy perspective on the need to improve race relations in America.

One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Blue Sky Drugs,” a bouncy, rockin’ gem blending synths and great guitar work, plus electronic handclaps. It’s incredibly catchy — while being a little sad at the same time, lamenting that there’s “No yellow brick road to lead us home.”

Throughout the album, almost every track has its appeal with skittering synths and dancing rhythms. Overall, The Pink Chateau is an outstanding contribution to the indie scene in 2019.


Bill Callahan’s New Double Album Is a True Jewel of Folk and Americana

4 Sep

Bill Callahan is a 50-something indie folk, Americana and roots singer-songwriter/guitarist with a baritone voice like Leonard Cohen’s and a style like no other. Based in the musical hotbed of Austin, Texas, Callahan has released a total of 17 albums since 1990 — recording under the name Smog until 2005, and since then under his own name.

Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is his latest. It’s his first collection of new material since 2013’s acclaimed Dream River, and like a dam breaking, the lengthy time between releases has resulted in a double album that’s been exceptionally well received by critics and listeners alike.

Callahan’s music is high on originality, with honest and introspective lyrics. Those lyrics are often sung with such minimal emotion and a dryness that some listeners may need time to get used to the style.

Callahan started writing the album around the time he began a relationship with Hanly Banks, a photographer and documentary film director. Callahan and Banks have since married and had a son, and this grounded bliss is reflected in a number of the songs on Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest.

Track highlights: There are so many standout tracks on the album that I’ll be featuring them over two Fridays on my show on KZSU.

After a short introduction, the second track, “Black Dog On The Beach,” is a leisurely song sung in a storytelling style, marked by the sorrowful whine of Callahan’s pedal steel guitar. “Angela” is forlorn love song with some great lines such as “Like motel curtains, we never really met/And cutting our losses is our best bet.”

Track 4, “The Ballad Of The Hulk,” features both strummed and fingerpicked guitar, fiddle and even some bongos for rhythm.

The best track on the album is “747,” a hopeful and uplifting song about birth and death and accepting the realities of life. Callahan’s poetry in this one is beautiful, as it is throughout Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest.

The 11th track out of 20 is a soothing ballad, featuring pristine fingerpicking, as Callahan sings about what comes next in life after one achieves bliss.

Song 18 is Callahan’s bright, rolling cover of the Carter Family tune., “Lonesome Valley.” Considering the subject, it too is remarkably calm and uplifting as Callahan (with sweet, unexpected harmonies from Banks) sings about his loved ones who will all have to walk the lonesome valley by themselves.

One last track of note is “Tugboats and Tumbleweeds,” the second to the last one on the album. This is Americana tune is performed at a walking pace, with an upright bass and rhythm that emphasizes the feeling of strolling along.

Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is an ideal Sunday morning indulgence — like Gordon Lightfoot albums of the distant past — thoughtful, pleasant and reassuring that life will somehow turn out to be just fine.


Canadian Mike Edel Crosses “Thresholds” with his Catchy New Indie Pop Folk Album

19 Aug

Mike Edel is a Canadian singer-songwriter who specializes in melodic folk pop. His new album is his third full-length release — but the first one produced by former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and widely respected music producer, Chris Walla.

Thresholds is a ten-song set of tunes that layer guitar, piano and synth — often with a prominent drum track providing energy and positivity. The upbeat, infectious songs remind me a lot of another Canadian folk-rock band, Shred Kelly, on their recent release Archipelago. The album also puts Edel in trendy company with the likes of popular bands — such as American Authors and Sheppard — that have a similar catchy, folk edge.

The songs on Thresholds reflect the recent comings and goings in Edel’s life — including professional successes and a change in location from Victoria to Seattle to the home he now shares with his American-born wife.

Walla’s influence on the recording process throughout was important, according to Edel. One of Walla’s more interesting contributions was that if a creative roadblock was encountered, Walla would frequently turn to a deck of cards called Oblique Strategies with one-liners such as “consistency is boring” or “do the least likely thing,” designed to give the project a nudge forward. The deck was originally created by no less than Brian Eno (together with Peter Schmidt) in the mid-1970s.

Apparently, this worked — because the result is excellent.

Track highlights: Thresholds opens with a catchy song that comes from the heart. (You can hear the heartbeat and the ocean’s swooshing right from the start.) Victoria, BC is a special place for Edel because it was his home for a number of years, and “Ocean View” stands as a tribute to this community. Edel said in an interview, “The ocean represents time and peace and regret and forgiveness and the future and optimism and newness.” And all of those qualities are integrated into this melodic folk pop standard.

“Go With You” is light and lilting synth-pop, with bright piano and a pulsing bass — underscored by thumping or scampering drums. The third track, “Houdini” demonstrates Edel’s versatility as he puts on his Neil Young jacket. It’s a guitar anthem with crunchy and jangly guitars and an arena-style beat.

One of the special tunes on Thresholds is “Challenger.” This song tells the tale of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle, which disintegrated shortly after launch in January of 1986, killing the seven crewmembers who were aboard.

Perhaps the catchiest tune in the ten-song set is “31.” The lyrics talk about the transition to your 30s, as you leave your youth behind. Edel blends guitar, piano and a snappy drum line with rich harmonies in the chorus to create a song you’ll be singing long after you first hear it.

While many of the critical reviews were mixed, I think Thresholds is a solid indie folk pop album that you’ll enjoy adding to your collection.


Beirut’s “Gallipoli” an Intriguing, Artistic Chamber-Pop and Indie Folk Experience

1 Aug

Gallipoli is the fifth studio album by indie folk, chamber pop and art pop-rock band, Beirut.

Recorded by lead singer-songwriter, Zach Condon, in New York, Italy and Berlin — the latter of which is where Condon now resides — Gallipoli is cinematic and musically daring, while being rather light on lyrics.

Condon was quoted in an interview as saying that he considers lyrics “overly personal,” while he views his music as being much more “transcendent” and universal. So, writing lyrics seems to be secondary for him, while Beirut’s music is free and highly creative.

In the new album, Gallipoli, there are a number of standout tracks, with a lot of the songs flowing together like a movie soundtrack.

Track highlights: Album opener, “When I Die,” is light and airy — with a strummed guitar, Farfisa organ and warm, liquid brass over an off-filter beat. Condon’s quavering vocals work perfectly with the tune.

Track 2, the title track, is a highlight. Condon says that the mariachi brass band sound reminds him of his previous home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The feeling of the tune is bouncy and warm, with a restful cantering beat and sentimental vocals.

“Gauze Für Zah” features a skipping, rolling melody. The song is atmospheric and free, with a repetitious beat and piano.

And “Landslide” is a good example of the sweeping, cinematic construction of many of the songs on the album. The arrangement includes a pulsing organ and full orchestration with soaring vocals.

Beirut has a unique musical style. Gallipoli remains true to Condon’s sense of style blending chamber pop and folk in an artistic fashion.


New Zealand’s Lawrence Arabia Returns with a Rush of Intriguing Indie Pop-Rock

16 Jul

James Milne is a New Zealand-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who performs under the name, Lawrence Arabia. Possessing a wry sense of humor, Milne’s music is intelligent, often a bit quirky and typically lightly produced indie pop-rock, chamber pop and psychedelic rock.

His fifth album, Lawrence Arabia’s Single’s Club, was released in February. It consists of 12 singles that he wrote, recorded and released each month from January through December of 2018. Hence the clever play on “Singles Club.”

On this album, Milne goes darker than usual in his observations about modern life (such as life in the suburbs, highlighted by trips to the mall for “a Westfield tan, a phone plan, a smoothie”). As he shares his observations about relationship challenges or politics, he can even get downright morbid at times — such as when he sings about the challenge of maintaining relationships, “…slowly it dawned that there was now nothing for us/Might as well lie in front of a bus/Hopeless in every way.”

But as dreary as that may sound, Milne’s music is captivating and melodic — and his lyrics are honest and thought-provoking. This makes Lawrence’s Arabia’s Singles Club a compelling listen for indie fans.

Track highlights: Opener “Solitary Guys” is a quiet, strummy, leisurely stroll — with falsetto vocals as Milne sings about guys with relationship issues.

“Everything’s Minimal” — a duet featuring Hollie Fullbrook, who performs as Tiny Ruins — is a fuzz synth indie rock tune with harpsichord and autoharp.

Track 5, “Everybody Wants Something,” is a wonderful lilting tune. The pulsing, lightly swaying synth-pop includes chimey and playful keys and sweet, almost Beatles-like harmonies mixing falsetto male and female voices.

“A Walk Into The Suburbs” features Milne’s incisive observations about the false comforts of life in the suburbs. The tune is dreamy pop with swelling synth strings and skipping drums — providing an interesting counterpoint to the message in the lyrics.

Finally, “Oppositional Democracy” is a song that’s about as political as Milne gets — because he says that he typically tries to stay away from overt commentary about the current state of world politics. The tune builds into a 1970s-style, guitar-driven rock anthem, something that might have been performed by Todd Rundgren back in the day.

Lawrence Arabia’s Singles Club is another excellent album from Down Under that needs to rise to the top of your list of indie music.